By BETH WINEGARNEROn the alleged 15-year-old Baltimore shooter's Facebook page, only one unobscured face looks out at the visitor: Rammstein singer Till Lindemann's. Meanwhile, Bobby Gladden's own face is obscured by a sheaf of black hair.
Gladden was arrested Monday after allegedly opening fire in the lunchroom at Perry Hall High School. Police say he critically injured a fellow student, Daniel Borowy, before guidance counselor Jesse Wasmer tackled Gladden and took the gun away.
It wasn't long before press caught wind of the fact that Gladden considers himself a metalhead. "Teenager who allegedly opened fire in Baltimore area high school was heavy metal misfit," claimed the New York Daily News. Even the relatively objective NBC noted Gladden's love of Rammstein and Slipknot one sentence before alleging that he was bullied, suggesting the spurious chain of causation endemic to coverage of teen shootings.
We've been down this road before. After the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, media jumped quickly on a portrait of the shooters as outcast goths who listened to Marilyn Manson. Things didn't improve when reporters discovered Eric Harris' love of heavy German bands, including Rammstein. It wasn't until much later that Harris was revealed as a psychopath -- a much more likely explanation for the shootings.
By then, much of the reporting had moved on. After all, who has that kind of attention span? Years later, Harris and his accomplice, Dylan Klebold, are still considered the archetypal school shooters: outcasts, misfits, lovers of heavy music. Given the reporting on Gladden, it's clear that we haven't evolved much in the past 13 years.
What do we know about heavy metal and its effect on listeners? In the late 1980s, at the peak of metal's mainstream crossover, academic Jeffrey Jensen Arnett interviewed hundreds of metalheads. He was among the first to ask them why they loved it, and they answered: for the speed and skill of the players, for the music's political and social criticism, and -- paradoxically -- to purge negative emotions and calm themselves down. The harder the music, the calmer they felt.
Although misfits and metal go hand in hand, the music doesn't make the misfit, Arnett argues. In fact, he prescribes a steady diet of the music to keep metalheads out of trouble.
Culturally, we have a hard time ascribing adult-level motivations to kids, especially when we're talking about attempted murder. If a grownup brings a gun to the workplace -- like, say, a handbag manufacturer near the Empire State Building -- job loss and disappointment are acceptable explanations.
Even in the case of someone like Wade Michael Page, who police say shot and killed six at a Milwaukee Sikh temple earlier this month, music didn't pull the trigger. Page played in white-supremacist hardcore bands. But it was his racism and hatred that fueled the alleged shooting; neo-Nazi metal, distasteful as it is, was a less deadly outlet for Page's sentiments.
But we don't think of kids as possessing that level of agency. Instead, when they shoot classmates -- a scene that has repeated itself dozens of times -- we assume their passive, spongelike minds must have soaked up the idea from some shred of violent media: violent video games, for example, or heavy metal. And yet, there's no scientific evidence for these claims.
Meanwhile, connecting heavy music, youth subcultures and violence has unintended consequences. After Columbine, young goths nationwide were regarded with suspicion and forced to leave their black clothes at home, lest they become the next shooter. Marilyn Manson canceled his tour, even though Harris and Klebold weren't fans. To this day, metalheads around the world face bullying and police harassment, in part due to the myth that they are somehow more violent than the average citizen.
Gladden wanted his Facebook visitors to see Lindemann's face, not his own. Like many teens, he's probably just starting to figure out who he is: a kid who delights in making super straws and spotting giant spiders. A kid who isn't sure which face he wants to show the world. In Rammstein's music, he may have found some comfort. That doesn't mean he found in it the desire to kill.